Getting a Pap test isn’t exactly something most women look forward to. But when you have one done, you want to make sure you’re doing what you can to max out the benefits.
During a Pap, it’s easy to assume that your doctor is doing everything possible to screen you for cancers and precancerous changes in your cervix, including testing you for human papillomavirus (HPV), a virus with certain strains that can cause the cervical changes that can lead to cancer. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
There are actually two different forms of the Pap test: The “regular” Pap test and the Pap and HPV co-test. And, while the latter screens for more things that could lead to cervical cancer at once, not all doctors use it, Electra Paskett, PhD, co-leader of the cancer control research program at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
What is the Pap test, exactly?
A Pap test, or Pap smear, is a test a medical provider does to check your cervix for abnormal cells, according to the U.S. Office on Women’s Health. If abnormal cervical cells aren’t found and treated in time, they can lead to cervical cancer, which is why this test is so crucial.
During a standard Pap test, your doctor or nurse will put a speculum inside your vagina and use a special stick or soft brush to collect cells from the outside of your cervix. Those cells are then sent to a laboratory for testing.
This test has been used for decades, but the Pap and HPV co-test came along a few years ago, Paskett says. The co-test is similar to the standard Pap test, but it also looks for DNA from HPV cells on your cervix. When you have a Pap and HPV co-test, your doctor can simply collect all of these cells at once.
Currently, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends that women ages 21 to 29 are screened for cervical cancer every three years with a standard Pap test. And if you’re between 30 and 65, you should have the option of getting a standard Pap test every three years, a Pap and HPV co-test every five years, or an HPV test every five years. That means getting a Pap and HPV co-test enables you to get tested less often than if you just had a “regular” Pap.
So why aren’t doctors using the co-test more?
For some doctors, it’s standard practice to do a Pap and HPV co-test at once for eligible women, Paskett says. But for others, it’s not. “Most doctors are just in the routine of doing the straight Pap test,” she says. “The HPV co-testing option was added a few years ago, and it can take a while for medical practices to catch up.”
Women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, MD, agrees. “Not every health provider is fully up on the latest data,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “But for women over 30 years old, this should definitely be an option in their doctor’s office.”
For the record, both tests are covered by insurance. “That shouldn’t be a barrier,” Paskett says. Unfortunately, there’s no way for you to know which test you’re having unless you ask — and you should ask, Wider says. If your doctor says there’s no plan to give you the Pap and HPV co-test “ask for it,” Wider says. “The HPV test can detect cells before they turn to cancer, and the earlier the better in the case of cervical cancer,” she adds.
If you’ve recently had a Pap test and you’re not sure if you were also tested for HPV, it’s easy enough to call your doctor’s office and find out, Wider notes. And if you weren’t tested for HPV, are unsure about your risk and don’t want to wait until it’s time for you to get another one, talk to your doctor about your options. “You can always go back in for the HPV test,” Wider says.
Ultimately, “you need to have this dialogue with your physician,” Paskett says. “Using appropriate screening and the HPV vaccine is really the only way we can eradicate cervical cancer.”